The Biggest Spot Up for Grabs in Every NFL Training Camp

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2021

The Biggest Spot Up for Grabs in Every NFL Training Camp

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    Jameis Winston (left) and Taysom Hill (right)
    Jameis Winston (left) and Taysom Hill (right)Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    NFL teams will start training camp at the end of July, but don't expect to see s'mores and roasted marshmallows over an open fire. 

    Every summer, players jockey for position on the depth chart. Some veterans will walk a thin line between a starting role and the 53-man cut line. Meanwhile, younger players have a chance to earn wide-open first-string jobs with strong performances in padded practices.

    All 32 teams have tough decisions to make at key roster spots up for grabs. Let's take a look at the biggest battles for each club based on the number of players vying for a role or the value of the position.

    We broke down the outlook of the unsettled roster slots and the key contenders who could win those open competitions.

Arizona Cardinals: Safety

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    Safety Jalen Thompson
    Safety Jalen ThompsonAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Jalen Thompson, Deionte Thompson, Chris Banjo, Shawn Williams 

    The Arizona Cardinals have both a star and a question mark at safety. Coming off his first All-Pro campaign as a defensive player, Budda Baker will line up in one spot, and the coaching staff has to sort out the other position. 

    Since the Cardinals selected Jalen Thompson in the fifth round of the 2019 supplemental draft, he's started in 13 games, logging 76 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception. The 22-year-old took the field with the first unit in the 2020 season opener, but he missed 11 contests because of a nagging ankle injury. If healthy, he's the probable starter. 

    Deionte Thompson has played a minimal role at safety, lining up for 584 defensive snaps in two seasons. He's only started in six out of 24 contests. Last year, the Alabama product played with the first unit between Weeks 4 and 7 but listed inactive, landed on the COVID-19 list and fell into a backup role for the remainder of the season.  

    In 2020, Chris Banjo started in four games, but don't count on him to win this competition. Through eight terms, he's opened with the first unit in just six contests.

    Back in March, the Cardinals signed Shawn Williams. At 30 years old, coming off a season with the Cincinnati Bengals in which he played mostly on special teams, he's past his prime and not a lock to make the 53-man roster. Nevertheless, his veteran experience as a starter (61 games) could shore up the position.

Atlanta Falcons: Left Guard

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    Offensive lineman Matt Gono
    Offensive lineman Matt GonoAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Josh Andrews, Jalen Mayfield, Matt Gono

    The Atlanta Falcons have a couple of unheralded veterans and a rookie vying for the left guard spot, where James Carpenter started 13 games last year. The front office released him in March. 

    The Athletic's Tori McElhaney views Josh Andrews as the "safe choice" to claim the starting job. If he sticks to the Falcons roster, the 30-year-old journeyman will suit up for his fourth team in seven years. Andrews only has four starts on his resume, so don't ink him in as the first-stringer yet. 

    As a collegian at Michigan, Jalen Mayfield took most of his snaps at right tackle, but the 6'5", 326-pounder has the size and power to move inside. In an ideal scenario, the rookie third-rounder makes a quick transition as the long-term starter, though that's a tough task to accomplish in Year 1. 

    Naturally a tackle, Matt Gono started at left guard against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16 last year. Perhaps the Falcons believe he has some position versatility.

    According to ESPN's Michael Rothstein, Gono underwent an unspecified surgery and remains out indefinitely, but his recovery isn't expected to keep him out for the entire 2021 season. He will likely lose ground to Andrews and Mayfield in this battle though.

Baltimore Ravens: Edge-Rusher

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    Edge-rusher Pernell McPhee
    Edge-rusher Pernell McPheeAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Pernell McPhee, Odafe Oweh, Jaylon Ferguson, Daelin Hayes 

    The Baltimore Ravens lost two veteran edge-rushers via free agency in Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, so their young talent at the position must contribute to the rotation.

    Tyus Bowser, a 2017 second-rounder, will likely line up as the strong-side linebacker. In March, the Ravens signed him to a four-year extension worth $22 million with $12 million guaranteed. Pernell McPhee could hold off a trio of developing players on the opposite side after starting in 13 contests last year.

    With that said, McPhee hasn't played more than 43 percent of his team's defensive snaps since the 2015 term. He could move into a reserve role if someone else flashes at training camp. 

    The Ravens selected Odafe Oweh in the first round of this year's draft. The rookie may take on a big role, though he could back up Bowser while developing his pass-rushing skills. As a collegian, the Penn State product recorded seven sacks.

    Jaylon Ferguson, who's the all-time NCAA sack leader, hasn't translated his pass-rushing potential into significant production yet. He's recorded just 4.5 sacks in two seasons, but the Louisiana Tech product will have a prime opportunity to break out with a pathway to more snaps on the edge. 

    As a rookie fifth-rounder, Daelin Hayes has an outside shot to emerge, but he turned some heads during the spring with simulated sacks at practice.

Buffalo Bills: Defensive End

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    Defensive end Jerry Hughes
    Defensive end Jerry HughesAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham, A.J. Epenesa

    The Buffalo Bills made an attempt to improve their pass rush this offseason. In 2020, the defense recorded 143 quarterback pressures and 38 sacks, both middling numbers relative to the rest of the league.

    Going into training camp, the Bills have a deep group at defensive end, though the front office could make a veteran cut to allow rookies Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham to play more snaps. 

    Mario Addison restructured his deal, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. As a result, he'll likely remain on the roster and play a decent role. The 33-year-old started in seven outings last season.

    Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com broke down the idea of cutting Jerry Hughes and why that may not happen.

    "The real savings would come if the Bills decided to move on from Hughes, who has a cap hit of $9.45 million. Buffalo would get more than $6 million in cap space if they cut Hughes, who is in the last year of his current deal. The issue with that prediction is that Hughes was still the Bills' best pass rusher last season and unless he looks like a lesser version in preseason, he's making this roster.”

    Even if both Addison and Hughes suit up for the Bills in the upcoming campaign, they may not play the majority snaps at the position. Last year, the two veterans listed first and second among the team's defensive ends in snaps. 

    With the addition of Rousseau and Basham, the Bills have options with more upside. The former recorded 15.5 sacks in 2019 and then opted out of the 2020 term. The latter logged 15 sacks over the last two seasons. 

    As Rousseau knocks off the rust following a year away from the field, Basham could be more of a threat to Hughes if the Bills want to save some cap space.

    Last year, as a rookie, A.J. Epenesa only played 291 defensive snaps, but he's a former second-round pick who has some potential. With some standout performances in the preseason, he could raise his 2021 stock.

Carolina Panthers: Left Tackle

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    Offensive tackle Trent Scott
    Offensive tackle Trent ScottAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Cameron Erving, Trent Scott, Brady Christensen, Greg Little

    The Carolina Panthers have contested spots at both positions on the left side of their offensive line, though they have a bigger group of contenders at tackle, including high draft picks. 

    The Panthers signed Cameron Erving, who's a versatile veteran. He's played all five positions across the line but filled in at left tackle for the Dallas Cowboys' injury-riddled unit last season. Consider the 28-year-old a decent stop-gap option.

    Since 2019, Trent Scott has started in nine games with the Los Angeles Chargers and four with the Panthers, playing most of those snaps at left tackle. He's a backup unless Erving shifts to another position and the younger competitors struggle to develop at camp.

    The Panthers selected Brady Christensen in the third round of this year's draft. He has three years of collegiate starting experience at left tackle. In 2020, the BYU product allowed just one sack and three quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. He's the potential long-term option within this group.

    Greg Little may have fallen out of favor with head coach Matt Rhule's staff. He's missed 18 games in two seasons, so the third-year pro must stay healthy for a fair chance to win the job. The 2019 second-rounder has some potential but needs to show it to a regime that didn't draft him.

Chicago Bears: Right Tackle

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    Offensive lineman Germain Ifedi
    Offensive lineman Germain IfediGary McCullough/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Germain Ifedi, Larry Borom, Elijah Wilkinson

    Though most of the Chicago Bears' training camp headlines will revolve around quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Justin Fields, the team has made it clear that the former is slated to start the season under center. Unless the veteran looks absolutely terrible this summer, that spot isn't up for grabs. 

    The Bears opened up a true competition at right tackle when they cut Bobby Massie.

    Germain Ifedi is the most likely replacement. Last season, he started in all 16 contests, splitting time between both positions on the right side. However, his past issues with penalties raise some concerns. If those faults arise again, the Bears will have to consider other options. 

    Chicago selected Larry Borom in the fifth round of the draft. As a Day 3 pick, he'll have to work hard to usurp an experienced veteran on the depth chart, but that's not an impossible feat with Ifedi's flaws. The Missouri product established himself at right tackle late in 2019 and held on to the position through 2020.

    Elijah Wilkinson will likely serve as a swing tackle, but he started in 19 outings primarily at right tackle for the Denver Broncos over the last two seasons. He has a shot at the job if Ifedi struggles and Borom isn't ready for the big league.

Cincinnati Bengals: Guard

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    Offensive guard Jackson Carman
    Offensive guard Jackson CarmanAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Quinton Spain, Michael Jordan, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Jackson Carman

    The Cincinnati Bengals have to find the right combination to flank projected starting center Trey Hopkins.

    After the Buffalo Bills cut him, Quinton Spain played last season with Cincinnati's first unit from Weeks 10 through 17. As a veteran with 74 starts and experience on both sides of the line, he's a strong candidate to win one of the jobs. 

    In two seasons, Michael Jordan has started in 19 games on the left side, but his time with the first unit may come to an end. He didn't play an offensive snap through the final four outings of the 2020 campaign.

    With Jordan out of the starting lineup, the coaching staff turned to Xavier Su'a-Filo to finish the season at left guard. The Bengals may feel comfortable with his veteran presence (58 starts) if they're not confident in their younger options.

    Jackson Carman will transition from left tackle to guard, and that could cause a delay in his development. Fortunately for him, he'll have a full offseason to work on his technique, particularly his hand usage. The Bengals should be ecstatic if the rookie second-rounder makes the position switch look effortless.

Cleveland Browns: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Greg Newsome II
    Cornerback Greg Newsome IIAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Greedy Williams, Greg Newsome II

    This battle boils down to a one-on-one competition for a spot on the boundary.

    Based on Greedy Williams' coverage statistics, he had a mixed bag of performances in 12 games as a starter in 2019. The LSU product broke up two passes, allowed a 61.3 percent completion rate, 12.4 yards per catch and zero touchdowns. At times, he gave up yards in chunks.

    Williams didn't have an opportunity to show improvement in the following year because of a shoulder injury that kept him on the sideline. 

    This offseason, the Cleveland Browns selected Greg Newsome II in the first round of the draft, which immediately puts Williams in a competition for the position opposite Denzel Ward. 

    Newsome is a physical cornerback who's effective in press coverage and isn't afraid to help out in run support. He just needs to stay healthy. The Northwestern standout suffered injuries in all three of his collegiate terms. 

    Keep in mind, general manager Andrew Berry didn't draft Williams, who's a product of the John Dorsey regime. As the Browns executive, he hasn't seen the third-year cornerback in regular-season action, so Newsome could garner favor with strong performances through camp and the preseason.

Dallas Cowboys: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Anthony Brown
    Cornerback Anthony BrownRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Anthony Brown, Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, Jourdan Lewis

    The Dallas Cowboys let Chidobe Awuzie walk during free agency, which opens up the starting boundary position opposite Trevon Diggs. The club has a mix of versatile veterans and Day 2 picks in competition for the spot.

    Last year, Brown opened and finished the season in the starting lineup. He has a lot of experience on the perimeter and in the slot, so new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn must figure out where the sixth-year veteran fits in his scheme. 

    Jonny Auping of the Cowboys' official website believes rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright have a chance at the job. He also thinks the Cowboys may experiment with nickelback Jourdan Lewis on the outside. 

    "Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright are going to make cases for starting jobs," Auping wrote. "And maybe they would try Jourdan Lewis on the outside. Anthony Brown deserves the respect right now, but young talent is always enticing."

    Joseph missed mandatory minicamp practices because of an illness, per Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News. Even though Quinn liked what he saw from the rookie second-rounder during the spring, the Kentucky product might've been upstaged by Wright. 

    ESPN's Todd Archer touted Wright as a standout performer through June.

    "Through the rookie minicamp and into the organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, Wright has been around the ball a ton," Archer wrote. "He had multiple interceptions and a handful of pass breakups. It hasn't always been clean and he has a long way to go, but the Cowboys might have hit on a less-than-known pick."

    Because Brown and Lewis have the ability to line up inside, the Cowboys can make room for an impressive rookie on the boundary.

Denver Broncos: Quarterback

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    Quarterback Drew Lock
    Quarterback Drew LockIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater

    Going into camp, this looks like a battle between two quarterbacks on equal ground. Head coach Vic Fangio said this is a "50-50 proposition."

    Drew Lock comes into the competition as the incumbent who's started in 18 games since the Denver Broncos selected him in the second round of the 2019 draft. As a rookie in five outings, he showed promise, throwing for seven touchdowns and three interceptions with a 64.1 percent completion rate but took a step back last year.

    In 2020, Lock threw for 2,933 yards, 16 touchdowns and tied Carson Wentz for most interceptions (15). Lock adjusted to a new system under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur without lead wideout Courtland Sutton, who tore his ACL last September.

    Despite the suboptimal circumstances around Lock in his second term, the Broncos acquired Teddy Bridgewater from the Carolina Panthers for a full-blown quarterback battle. 

    Bridgewater didn't light up defenses last year either. He threw for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 15 starts with the Panthers. Although the 28-year-old has a low ceiling because of his conservative arm, he doesn't turn the ball over as much compared to Lock. 

    While Lock should focus on his decision-making in the pocket, Bridgewater needs to show he's able to push the ball downfield with a strong pass-catching group that includes Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, KJ Hamler and Noah Fant. The quarterback who makes the most strides in those aspects will likely win the job. 

Detroit Lions: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Amani Oruwariye
    Cornerback Amani OruwariyeLeon Halip/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Quinton Dunbar, Amani Oruwariye, Ifeatu Melifonwu

    Even though the Detroit Lions brought in a new regime, Jeff Okudah, last year's No. 3 overall pick, should be a lock to start on the boundary because of his draft pedigree. On the opposite side, the team will have a choice of three long cornerbacks, all listed 6'2" or taller on the team's official website. One of them will replace Desmond Trufant, whom the club cut this offseason. 

    The Lions signed Dunbar, who has the most experience within the group of contenders (31 starts), but he's battled injuries throughout his career. The seventh-year veteran has missed at least five games in four of his campaigns. In 2020, he sat out 10 contests because of a knee issue that required surgery. 

    Last year, in his second term, Oruwariye showed signs of promise. Through 16 games (15 starts), he recorded seven pass breakups, an interception and allowed a 59.3 percent catch rate in coverage. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn may like what he sees in the third-year pro's development. 

    Melifonwu has the athletic profile to garner some attention at camp. He's a 6'3", 210-pound cover man from Syracuse. He should be able to compete with NFL talent. Because of his size and his willingness to tackle, the Lions could play him at an unsettled safety position

    Nonetheless, his physical tools give him a chance to claim the perimeter position in the secondary. He recorded 19 pass breakups and three interceptions through three collegiate terms.     

Green Bay Packers: Center

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    Offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins
    Offensive lineman Elgton JenkinsIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Josh Myers, Jon Runyan, Elgton Jenkins

    Someone will have big cleats to fill at the pivot. The Green Bay Packers lost All-Pro center Corey Linsley to the Los Angeles Chargers via free agency. Expect one of the following three contenders to fill a gaping hole in the middle of the offensive line.

    At Ohio State, Myers served as a 2020 team captain and took over the first-string job at center in 2019. The two-year starter brings leadership qualities and experience.

    The Packers selected three offensive linemen in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, but Runyan was the only one of the trio to play any snaps last year, albeit at guard. Yet The Athletic's Matt Schneidman believes the second-year pro has a legitimate chance to replace Linsley.

    "Don't be surprised if Runyan gets the first crack at the center job, even after the Packers drafted Myers in the second round," Schneidman wrote. 

    You can toss Jenkins' name in here as well. He's played all five positions across the offensive line in two seasons. The versatile lineman filled in for Linsley, who missed Weeks 13 to 15 with a knee injury last year.

    We must also take Jenkins' collegiate experience into account. At Mississippi State, he started 26 games at center over his junior and senior terms.

    Jenkins may be the Packers' best option at center, but offensive line coach Adam Stenavich also sees him as a "very, very good tackle," which means he could line up on the perimeter until left tackle David Bakhtiari recovers from a torn ACL.      

Houston Texans: Right Guard

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    Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon
    Offensive lineman Marcus CannonWill Newton/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Marcus Cannon, Lane Taylor, Justin McCray

    In terms of training camp competition, the Houston Texans' battle at guard raises the most questions. They released Zach Fulton, who started at the position over the last three campaigns. 

    When asked about Cannon and Tytus Howard vying for the right tackle spot, offensive line coach James Campen opened up the conversation about the entire unit during a press conference: 

    "The competition is really more widespread than just two players, and I do believe that. We have eight tackles on our roster right now, and I think seven or eight guys that can play. We have some flexibility with our linemen, which I think there is a lineman that can play more than one position and can be trained as such."

    Cannon opted out of the 2020 term because of the coronavirus pandemic and underwent offseason knee surgery, so he may fall behind in his push for the right tackle spot. However, the 33-year-old could get a shot at a wide-open right guard slot. 

    Lane Taylor played most of his career snaps at left guard with the Packers. Since 2019, he's missed 29 games because of biceps and knee injuries.     

    McCray has position versatility, lining up in multiple spots, though he has just 19 starts in four years.

Indianapolis Colts: No. 3 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin
    Cornerback Rock Ya-SinIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III, T.J. Carrie

    The Indianapolis Colts' No. 3 cornerback has a little more importance in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' scheme because that player lines up on the boundary when Kenny Moore II shifts to the slot in a heavily used nickel formation.

    This offseason, Eberflus put Ya-Sin on notice.

    "At cornerback ... we got Kenny, we got Xav, but who's going to be that third guy?" Eberflus told reporters. "There's competition there. Competition brings out the best in people.” 

    Ya-Sin's ears likely perked up because he's served as the No. 3 cornerback for most of his first two seasons. However, the coaching staff benched him for Carrie in the second half of the 2020 campaign.

    Over the 2019 and 2020 terms, Ya-Sin allowed at least a 67 percent completion rate, which may explain Eberflus' question about the third cornerback position. If the Temple product doesn't show improvement, Carrie could take on the job in a full-time capacity. 

    Tell is the sleeper choice in this competition. He opted out of the 2020 term, but he allowed a respectable 57.1 percent completion rate during his 2019 rookie campaign.         

Jacksonville Jaguars: Running Back

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    Running back James Robinson
    Running back James RobinsonJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: James Robinson, Travis Etienne

    The Jacksonville Jaguars made a surprise selection in the first round of this year's draft, taking Travis Etienne with the 25th overall pick following James Robinson's impressive rookie campaign.

    In his early depth-chart projections, The Athletic's Andy Staples listed Etienne as the starter. 

    "Yes, the undrafted free agent from Illinois State was one of the best stories of the 2020 season," Staples wrote. "And yes, he'll still play a major role in the offense. But the Jaguars didn't draft Etienne at No. 25 to make him a third-down back." 

    Even more intriguing, Etienne took most of his snaps at wide receiver during rookie minicamp. At Clemson, he caught 102 passes for 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns over four seasons. The Jaguars will likely use him in an every-down role, which may bump Robinson into a reserve position despite tying for fifth in rushing yards (1,070) last year.

    Nevertheless, Etienne and Robinson should both see a lot of touches, with Carlos Hyde mixed in as the third tailback.    

Kansas City Chiefs: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Cornerback L'Jarius Sneed
    Cornerback L'Jarius SneedJamie Squire/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: L'Jarius Sneed, Deandre Baker, Mike Hughes

    The Kansas City Chiefs didn't re-sign cornerback Bashaud Breeland, but they have three high-potential options to replace him. 

    At the beginning of the 2020 term, while Breeland served a four-game suspension for a substance-abuse violation, Sneed lined up on the outside for most of that stretch. After six weeks on injured reserve with a broken collarbone, he transitioned to the slot in the second half of the campaign.  

    Overall, Sneed had an impressive rookie season, logging seven pass breakups and three interceptions while allowing a 59.6 percent completion rate in coverage. With experience on the outside and in the slot, he offers quality versatility.

    In November, the Chiefs signed Baker, whom the New York Giants waived after putting him on the commissioner's exempt list with four counts of armed robbery. The Broward State Attorney's Office dropped all those charges after William Dean, who represented three of the alleged victims, was arrested on charges of extortion. 

    Baker appeared in two games (started one) and broke his leg in the season finale against the Los Angeles Chargers. With the timing of the injury, he may have to ramp up slowly at camp.  

    In May, the Chiefs sent a 2022 sixth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for a package with Hughes, a low-risk, high-reward acquisition. 

    Like Baker in 2019, Hughes came into league as a first-round pick (2018). The latter has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, missing half of his games through three seasons. He finished the 2020 term on injured reserve with a neck injury.

    Safety Tyrann Mathieu thinks Hughes made a good early impression during spring practices, showing "why he was a first-round draft pick."    

Las Vegas Raiders: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Damon Arnette
    Cornerback Damon ArnetteEthan Miller/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Casey Hayward Jr., Damon Arnette

    This competition doesn’t look good on the Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock draft record. 

    According to The Athletic's Vic Tafur, the Raiders may have already moved on from 2020 first-rounder Damon Arnette as a starter on the boundary.

    "Well, after watching minicamp practices Tuesday and Wednesday and talking to people in the building, Arnette has become almost an after-thought," Tafur wrote. "The Raiders signed veteran Casey Hayward in May and all but handed him Arnette's starting job opposite Trayvon Mullen."

    Arnette underwent surgery for a fractured thumb, landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and suffered a concussion during his rookie campaign. He missed seven outings and allowed a 78.1 percent completion rate while on the field for 32 percent of the defensive snaps. 

    Mayock wanted to see more out of Arnette away from the field.

    "What he needs is the consistency of nutrition, a weight room and a workout regimen," Mayock said, per Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "And he needs to apply himself religiously. We have no problems with his quickness, with his ability to cover and his innate competitiveness. It's the other things." 

    With the Los Angeles Chargers, Hayward served as a team captain and played four seasons under new Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. The 31-year-old would provide experience and leadership to a young secondary.     

Los Angeles Chargers: No. 3 Wide Receiver

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    Wideout Tyron Johnson
    Wideout Tyron JohnsonAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Tyron Johnson, Jalen Guyton, Josh Palmer

    The Chargers will have an intriguing battle for the No. 3 wide receiver spot.  

    Last year, Johnson and Guyton flashed big-play ability, averaging 19.9 and 18.3 yards per reception, respectively. According to ESPN's Shelley Smith, the former stood out during the spring. 

    "'T-Billy,' as he is known at the facility, is a legit 4.3 guy who made the most of his 20 receptions last year for 398 yards," Smith wrote. "He is really fun to watch running routes. In minicamp, he was a blur, and coaches talked him up big-time. He's a qualified third receiver (behind Mike Williams and Keenan Allen) and should open things up for Justin Herbert." 

    In his early depth-chart projections in May, The Athletic's Daniel Popper listed Guyton as the front-runner for the open role.

    "I still have Guyton as the leader in the clubhouse for the WR3 spot," Popper wrote. "He struggles with drops but is nonetheless an explosive deep threat who had a breakout season in 2020 with 28 catches for 511 yards and three touchdowns, two of which went for 70 or more yards." 

    In the third round of this year's draft, the Chargers selected Palmer, who averaged 15.3 yards per catch through four terms at Tennessee. Because of his draft pedigree, he's in the mix.  

    Regardless of who emerges in this battle, Herbert will have a playmaker who can stretch the field.

Los Angeles Rams: Center

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    Offensive lineman Austin Corbett
    Offensive lineman Austin CorbettIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Austin Corbett, Brian Allen, Coleman Shelton

    The Los Angeles Rams lost center Austin Blythe to the Chiefs in free agency, opening up a critical position at the pivot. Keep an eye on the center-to-quarterback exchange with Matthew Stafford in a new environment. 

    The Rams acquired Corbett from the Browns in October 2019. He took snaps at center though spring practices, which is an intriguing development because he served as the first-string right guard for all 16 outings in 2020. The 25-year-old has limited live-game experience as the centerpiece of an offensive line.

    Allen started in nine contests at the pivot during the 2019 season but opted out of the 2020 campaign. He was the first NFL player known to have tested positive for the coronavirus, per Jay Glazer of Fox Sports. The fourth-year veteran will likely reclaim this starting position if Corbett struggles to make the transition from right guard to center.

    Shelton has a slight chance to earn the job. According to The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue, he took snaps at center with the second team, while Allen moved to right guard during a warm-up session. She reported that head coach Sean McVay views both Shelton and Allen as depth at the position. That perspective could change if either of the two impress at training camp.  

Miami Dolphins: Right Tackle

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    Offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg
    Offensive tackle Liam EichenbergMark Brown/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: D.J. Fluker, Jermaine Eluemunor, Liam Eichenberg

    The Miami Dolphins offensive line will undergo multiple changes with the departure of center Ted Karras via free agency and guard Ereck Flowers, whom the club traded to the Washington Football Team.

    According to Adam H. Beasley, formerly of the Miami Herald, Robert Hunt, who played right tackle last season, "is seemingly" in the lead for the starting job at right guard.

    In 2020, Jesse Davis took snaps at both tackle positions and right guard. Beasley believes the versatile offensive lineman will compete with Solomon Kindley for the spot at left guard to replace Flowers.

    The Dolphins offensive line looks like a big puzzle right now, but the coaching staff must pick the right player to protect Tua Tagovailoa's blind side. Remember, he's a left-handed quarterback, so the starting right tackle is a little more important in this offense.

    With Hunt reportedly moving inside, the Dolphins will likely have a new starter at right tackle.

    Miami signed Fluker and Eluemunor this offseason. Both veterans started eight games last year. The former logged a majority of his snaps at right tackle for the Ravens, while the latter took on a swing tackle role with the New England Patriots.

    At Notre Dame, Eichenberg played left tackle, but if he's a quick study, the rookie second-rounder could lock down the position.        

Minnesota Vikings: Defensive End

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    Defensive end D.J. Wonnum
    Defensive end D.J. WonnumAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: D.J. Wonnum, Stephen Weatherly, Patrick Jones II, Janarius Robinson

    The Minnesota Vikings' subpar pass rush hurt their defense last year. The team ranked in the bottom five in sacks (23) and quarterback pressures (116), giving up the fourth-most points and the sixth-most yards.

    Danielle Hunter missed the entire 2020 campaign with a neck injury, and though he's set to return, the Vikings shouldn't rely solely on him to generate pocket pressure.

    Minnesota did address the position in the third and fourth rounds of this year's draft, selecting Jones and Robinson in those slots, respectively. 

    Over 2019 and 2020, Jones recorded 24 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks for the Pittsburgh Panthers. He's not a quick-twitch athletic defender, but the 6'4", 261-pounder knows how to squeeze through tight spaces and shed blocks to take down his target. 

    At 6'5", 263 pounds, Robinson shows more power in his push toward the pocket. He projects as a more effective run defender than a pass-rusher. The Florida State product recorded 20.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks through four collegiate terms. 

    The Vikings can further develop their first of three fourth-round picks from last year in Wonnum, who played 44 percent of the defensive snaps, logging 24 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks as a rookie. 

    Weatherly is a solid option because he knows the defensive scheme. He suited up for the Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer between 2016 and 2019. The 27-year-old returned to Minnesota for a second stint. He logged six sacks over the 2018 and 2019 campaigns.      

New England Patriots: Quarterback

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    Quarterback Cam Newton
    Quarterback Cam NewtonSteven Senne/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Cam Newton, Mac Jones 

    Don't assume Cam Newton will start under center in consecutive years for the New England Patriots. 

    NFL Network's Mike Giardi anticipates a "true quarterback competition" at training camp. Per his report, one offensive player said, "Mac sees the game the way [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] sees it." 

    Coming off his worst season, throwing for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 starts, Newton may have to work hard for the lead role despite head coach Bill Belichick calling him the starter earlier in the offseason. 

    The Athletic's Jeff Howe echoed Giardi's thoughts:

    "The grind of training camp, the preseason and likely joint practices will give Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels an extended look at Newton and Jones. [...] If Newton continues to be inconsistently accurate – an obvious problem in 2020 that happened at times this offseason as well – the coaches will have a chance to conclude his lack of success from a season ago wasn't just because of the lack of talent around him." 

    The Patriots selected Jones with the 15th overall pick in this year's draft. In 2020, he helped lead Alabama to a national title in an undefeated (13-0) campaign. Perhaps Belichick and McDaniels see his 2020 numbers (4,500 passing yards, 41 touchdown, four interceptions and a 77.4 percent completion rate) as more than just a product of an elite supporting cast.

    This offseason, New England upgraded its pass-catching group, signing Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Both Newton and Jones will have a chance to show what they can do with a solid stable of playmakers in the first unit this summer.    

New Orleans Saints: Quarterback

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    Quarterback Jameis Winston
    Quarterback Jameis WinstonAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill

    In one of the most impactful training camp battles across the league, Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill will compete to become Drew Brees' successor. 

    Last season, while Brees sat out four games with rib and lung injuries, Hill took over the offense and threw for four touchdowns and two interceptions. The dual-threat signal-caller also rushed for 209 yards and four touchdowns, fumbled six times and lost three of them in that stretch.

    Hill has four years of experience in head coach Sean Payton's system, so his familiarity with the scheme could help him win the job.

    In his first year with the Saints, Winston completed seven out of 11 passes for 75 yards during the regular season. He tossed a 56-yard touchdown pass to Tre'Quan Smith in the postseason. 

    If Winston wants to show he's improved while sitting behind Brees and Hill, he must make better decisions in the pocket, specifically cutting down on interceptions. The seventh-year veteran has thrown 88 interceptions in 76 outings. 

    The battle between Hill and Winston could come down to who's more secure with the football.    

New York Giants: Edge-Rusher

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    Edge-rusher Azeez Ojulari
    Edge-rusher Azeez OjulariAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Azeez Ojulari, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Oshane Ximines

    The New York Giants have a stout defense, but they could see improvement in their pass rush, specifically on the edge. 

    In 2020, Kyler Fackrell led the outside linebacker group's push toward the pocket with just four sacks. The Chargers signed him in March. Unless Lorenzo Carter takes a huge leap in his fourth campaign, coming off a torn Achilles, the Giants will need another second-level defender to generate pressure. 

    Big Blue selected Ojulari in the second round of this year’s draft. At 6'2", 249 pounds, he may struggle against the run on the pro level, but he's a pure pass-rusher who makes great use of his hands to shed blocks and tracks down quarterbacks with speed in his pursuit. The Georgia product logged 9.5 sacks in his final collegiate term. If he doesn't experience any knee issues, he's a solid choice to win the job. 

    The Giants signed an underrated free agent in Odenigbo. Over the last two seasons, he logged 10.5 sacks with the Vikings. In 2020, the 27-year-old opened with the first unit in 15 outings. The 6'3", 258-pounder could develop into a consistent playmaker with another opportunity at a prominent role. 

    As a rookie in 2019, Ximines had some bright moments, recording 4.5 sacks, nine quarterbacks hits and five tackles for loss. He suffered a season-ending injury last year, but The Athletic's Dan Duggan noted the Old Dominion product took reps with the starters during the spring.

    "I thought Ximines could find himself on the roster bubble after missing most of last season with a torn rotator cuff and returning to a crowded outside linebackers room," Duggan wrote. "But Ximines participated in minicamp and took some first-team reps."

    Going into the summer, Ximines probably is third in the pecking order behind Ojulari (a high draft pick) and Odenigbo (a more experienced veteran).       

New York Jets: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Blessuan Austin
    Cornerback Blessuan AustinBenjamin Solomon/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Blessuan Austin, Jason Pinnock, Isaiah Dunn 

    The New York Jets may go with a relatively inexperienced duo at cornerback.

    According to Connor Hughes of The Athletic, head coach Robert Saleh wants to see a group of young cover men in action.

    "The Jets wanted to see how the young guys performed this summer, and they apparently feel comfortable with what they have," Hughes wrote. 

    DJ Bien-Aime II of the New York Daily News noted that Bryce Hall took the majority reps at one starting spot and three players rotated on the opposite side.

    "Hall has gotten the majority of the first team reps and has been fine," Bien-Aime II wrote. "But he still has to earn his starting spot with a strong training camp. The other cornerback spot has been a revolving door between Austin, Pinnock and Dunn."

    Austin missed a few practices because of an undisclosed injury. He's started in 16 contests over the past two seasons, logging eight pass breakups in coverage. While the third-year veteran is the probable front-runner for the No. 2 spot, we cannot discount Pinnock or Dunn.

    The Jets selected Pinnock in the fifth round of this year's draft. Last year, at the University of Pittsburgh, he showed his ball-tracking skills with three interceptions and five pass breakups.

    Dunn drew praise from defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich

    "That's a guy that makes strides every day," Ulbrich said at the beginning of a press conference in June. "And he's making a push to not just make this team but potentially play and contribute."

    Dunn didn't record an interception through four collegiate terms, but he broke up 18 passes. Perhaps the Oregon State product will make a few splashy plays to win this battle in the summer.    

Philadelphia Eagles: Left Tackle

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    Left tackle Andre Dillard
    Left tackle Andre DillardMatt Slocum/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Andre Dillard, Jordan Mailata

    Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata will go mano a mano for the left tackle job.

    In 2019, the Philadelphia Eagles used a first-round pick on Dillard. For most of his rookie term, he served as a backup to Jason Peters, starting in only four outings. Last August, the agile tackle tore his biceps, which sidelined him for the year. 

    As Dillard nursed an injury and Peters struggled through his age-38 term, Mailata took on a prominent role at tackle. Despite his early struggles in pass protection, he had a decent stretch late in the campaign. 

    In the eyes of offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, Mailata has done enough to put himself in the discussion with Dillard for the full-time job.  

    "They're going to both be given an opportunity. ... I think any time there is competition like that, and it's that close, it brings the best out of both players," Stoutland said to reporters. "Both players will have to be on, every day."

    Mailata, a former Australian rugby player whom the Eagles picked in the seventh round of the 2018 draft, makes this an intriguing competition. If he wins the battle, teams may call Philadelphia with trade offers for Dillard in hopes of developing him into a solid starter.

Pittsburgh Steelers: No. 3 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Justin Layne
    Cornerback Justin LaynePhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Justin Layne, James Pierre, Arthur Maulet, Shakur Brown

    The Pittsburgh Steelers allowed slot cornerback Mike Hilton to walk in free agency and cut Steven Nelson after granting him permission to seek a trade. Now the coaching staff has two spots to fill in the secondary.

    The Steelers have some flexibility with Cameron Sutton's ability to play on the boundary and in the slot, so the winner of this competition lists as the No. 3 cornerback rather than an exclusive outside or inside defender.

    Pittsburgh cannot lean on experience with the players in this group. Maulet, who signed with the club this offseason, has the most starts (12) among the four contenders. Over the last two seasons, the fifth-year cover man lined up on the perimeter and in the slot for the Jets.

    Perhaps Layne will take a significant step in his third term. The Steelers selected him in the third round of the 2019 draft, and he's played just 117 defensive snaps

    Other than Layne, two players who went undrafted over the last two years have drawn some intrigue, per The Athletic's Mark Kaboly

    "Being able to sign Shakur Brown after the draft and the possibility of James Pierre or Justin Layne taking a step forward is their biggest hope," he wrote.

    Pierre didn't start a game during his first year. After the 2021 draft, Pittsburgh signed Brown as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State. With an impressive stretch through the preseason, one of them could take on a big responsibility in the secondary.       

San Francisco 49ers: Slot Wide Receiver

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    Wideout Mohamed Sanu
    Wideout Mohamed SanuAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Mohamed Sanu, Travis Benjamin, Richie James, Jalen Hurd

    Following wideout Kendrick Bourne’s departure to the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers have a wide-open competition for the third spot behind Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. 

    Last season, Mohamed Sanu appeared in three contests for the 49ers and only caught one pass for nine yards. The club released him, and he went on to suit up for the Detroit Lions for the remainder of the year. San Francisco signed Sanu again in April.

    Turning 32 years old in August, Sanu is past his prime and may fall behind a much younger talent who flashes at training camp, but his familiarity with the scheme keeps him in contention for the job. 

    Travis Benjamin opted out of the 2020 term, but his connection to head coach Kyle Shanahan goes back to their 2014 season with the Cleveland Browns. The 31-year-old has big-play ability, averaging 15.1 yards per catch, which would help this offense stretch the field.

    Richie James had an expanded role for most of the second half of the 2020 campaign, and he left a strong impression in Week 9 against the Green Bay Packers, hauling in nine catches for 184 yards and a touchdown. At 5’9”, 185 pounds, he profiles as a smaller slot receiver with notable speed.

    Jalen Hurd, a 2019 third-rounder, checks in at 6’5”, 230 pounds. He has the physical tools to turn heads on the practice field but needs to stay healthy.

    Hurd has yet to take a regular-season snap because of his recovery from back surgery and a torn ACL.

Seattle Seahawks: Cornerback

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    Cornerback D.J. Reed
    Cornerback D.J. ReedAbbie Parr/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: D.J. Reed, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tre Flowers, Tre Brown

    The Seattle Seahawks didn’t re-sign cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who inked a deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The coaching staff has to piece together the starting tandem on the boundary with both spots open. 

    In 2020, Tre Flowers and D.J. Reed played the second- and third-most snaps at cornerback behind Griffin. The former made more of an impact in coverage, logging seven pass breakups and two interceptions, while the latter recorded two pass breakups before a hamstring injury derailed his season. 

    Consequently, Reed should have an inside track to a starting job. Flowers may serve as depth behind Ahkello Witherspoon, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the club this offseason. 

    The Seahawks selected Tre Brown in the fourth round of this year’s draft. He has an uphill climb to earn a spot on the boundary, but this group doesn’t have a player who’s head and shoulders above the rest, so a strong showing at training camp could help him tremendously. As a collegian, he recorded four interceptions and 31 pass breakups through four terms at Oklahoma.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Running Back

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    Running back Leonard Fournette
    Running back Leonard FournetteAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette

    In 2020, Ronald Jones II led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers backfield as the featured ball-carrier. He finished with a career-high 978 rushing yards.

    However, during the Buccaneers’ playoff stretch, Leonard Fournette took over the lead role. He started and scored in all four postseason matchups. In three of those games, the 26-year-old eclipsed 100 scrimmage yards. 

    Fournette offers more than Jones as a receiver. Though the Buccaneers have running back Giovani Bernard to fill that pass-catching role, the coaching staff may prefer a more versatile threat on the field for first and second downs to keep a variety of play options open. 

    Fournette has 170 receptions for 1,242 yards and two touchdowns through four seasons. Jones hasn’t caught more than 31 passes in any of his three seasons.  

    Jones goes into a contract year, and Fournette chose to re-sign with the club. We could see them split early-down responsibilities nearly 50-50, but the latter’s recent playoff performances could shift the dynamic in his favor.

Tennessee Titans: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Cornerback Kristian Fulton
    Cornerback Kristian FultonMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farley

    Right tackle also comes to mind here, but the Tennessee Titans have two youngsters with little or no NFL experience vying for the No. 2 cornerback position opposite established veteran Janoris Jenkins, which creates a true toss-up battle. 

    This offseason, the Titans cut Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson, opening the door for either Kristian Fulton or Caleb Farley.

    As a rookie, Fulton played just 202 defensive snaps, logging 16 tackles (one for loss), a pass breakup, an interception and a sack while allowing a 68.8 percent completion rate in coverage. He missed 10 outings because of a short stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list and a knee injury.

    The Titans selected Farley with the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft. The rookie underwent back surgery in March, but if he’s able to bounce back and participate in full at camp, the Virginia Tech product could win the job.

    Farley is a long (6’2”, 197 lbs), athletic cornerback who recorded 19 pass breakups and six interceptions over the last two collegiate campaigns. Within a remodeled cornerback unit, his ball-tracking skills can bolster a pass defense that allowed the fourth-most yards and the second-most touchdowns in 2020.

Washington Football Team: Right Tackle

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    Offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas
    Offensive tackle Cornelius LucasRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Cornelius Lucas, Sam Cosmi

    The Washington Football team created an opening at right tackle when they released Morgan Moses in May. The club signed Charles Leno Jr., who’s set to play on the left side.

    For most of his seven-year career, Cornelius Lucas has started on the right side, but Washington moved him to left tackle last year. He will have an opportunity to switch back to his natural position as a low-cost starter with a $2.1 million cap hit.

    Head coach Ron Rivera seems excited about rookie second-rounder Sam Cosmi, per The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker.

    "We do want (Cosmi) on the field, but we will put him on the field when we get him there, when he earns that opportunity," Rivera said. "Lucas is a guy that we are taking a nice, hard look at. That’s going to be a very competitive position going into training camp."

    At Texas, Cosmi lined up on both sides of the offensive line but served as a left tackle for his last two collegiate terms. Clearly, Rivera wants to see the rookie play, but the team won’t rush him if he’s not ready.

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